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11/16/2004

Noah Feldman

I just attended a New America Foundation brown bag on Noah Feldman's What We Owe Iraq. His argument is that we have an ethical obligation to provide Iraqis a viable opportunity to establish an effective constitutional democracy. This entails increasing our commitment to stabilizing the security situation, stimulating the development of a legitimate bargaining authority within the Sunni insurgency, and persuading Kurds and Shiites to recognize the necessity of political compromise, rather than theological decisionism. [See press on Feldman's book: WSJ, WSJ, NYT, NYT (first chapter) - more from Feldman at NAF].

Three observations:

1. Feldman is reframing "realism." There is little room for ethics in classic international realism, and the very question of what we "owe" Iraq is foreign to the traditional conception, except to the extent that apparent adherence to an ethical vision strengthens our security interests [i.e., Geneva conventions, enabling constraints]. His argument was that Americans needed to be able to wake up in the morning and look at themselves in the mirror without feeling abject shame. That would be a nice development, but I suspect that Feldman is overestimating the percentage of the American population that is capable of feeling shame, and more specifically, capable of feeling shame about our treatment of Iraqis. A better standard might be for the rest of the world to be able to look through the window and not think "death to America." Feldman appears to be backdooring into a broader theoretical debate about the relationship between international legitimacy, fidelity to international ethical and legal norms and multilateral institutions and American national security interests. This debate needs to be addressed head on. (n.b.: I haven't read Feldman's book - he may cover all this ground therein.)

2. Neoconservatives mean something different by "democracy" than ethical realists like Feldman. This is a topic I have been meaning to address for some time, as the American conversation on democratization is hopelessly muddled without clarification. Neoconservative "democratization" is a strategy for pacification, of using the pageantry and trappings of popular sovereignty to channel political and social discord into mediating institutions. There is no other way to synchronize the neoconservative embrace of democratization, of the militarized imposition of democratic institutions, with their goal of reducing anti-Americanism and support for radical Islam.

To an ethical realist, channeling public discontent into mediating institutions is an important part of democratization, but a side benefit, rather than the entire ball game. They (we?) view democracy as a moral good in its own right, a system in which people are capable of realizing their preferences and being recognized as legitimate participants in the exercise of authority. Even if we could fiat the development of democratic institutions in Iraq, we would still have the difficult task of winning the support, respect, and trust of the Iraqi people. We won't be made safer by a legitimate election in Iraq, we will be safer if the Iraqi people stop hating us.

[William Robinson (warning: Chomskyist undertones) calls the neoconservative conception of democracy "polyarchy," which is unfortunate, as "polyarchy" has been used by Dahl, among others, to mean something almost exactly opposite. See Robinson's comments on Iraq here.]

3. This administration has screwed everything up. Not enough troops, not enough planning, not enough smarts. Had I the chance to ask Feldman a question, it would have been if he had submitted his resume to the Heritage Foundation. Why else would this administration let him advise Bremer?

Update, 11/16/04, 10:48 PM EST: Matt Yglesias also attended the event. His take is here. He undervalues Feldman's contribution; of course the best case scenario laid out in the talk was extemely unlikely, and the reward minimal. That's why it's a shitty situation. The value of the book is that it attempts to visualize a way out, something to work toward. To this point, I haven't seen an actual, coherent theory on how to salvage anything in Iraq - Feldman gives us something to work toward, however unlikely.

 

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